Sitting across the booth from each other at Caffetto, Ben Clark and Irene Ruderman-Clark recall their first date. "Basically, I saw Ben and I was like, in love," Irene says. "It was insane —"
"She was an hour late," he cuts in.
They laugh. "I was like, let's do shots of vodka! I was really nervous," Irene continues, smoothing down the sleeve of her polka-dot blouse, a pained look on her face. "Long story short: I got really drunk... and it was really embarrassing. I fell down the stairs of the Dinkytowner."
"I asked her to play Hang Man," Ben says. "I tried to get her attention on something else, so I put a puzzle in front of her and tried to get her to solve it. It worked. She didn't solve the puzzle but she did stop crying."
Little did they know that this first date, born of a MySpace chat 10 years ago while Irene was still a law student in Boston and the discovery of their mutual admiration for Krzysztof Kieslowski's Three Colors film trilogy, would lead to so much. Now married with a son, the pair recently debuted the avant-garde Russian folk/poetry project StoLyette. The duo are backed by local label Totally Gross National Product, with whom Ben shares affiliation from his work in Votel and performing with Poliça.
StoLyette occupies its own strange niche, rooted in Irene's Russian heritage and driven by Ben's mastery of looping. At 11, Irene migrated from Russia. "It was the Soviet Union then, and we were Russian Jews, so we went through an emigration process through Europe and New York, and then came here. We had relatives who had come here in the '70s, when you had to have a sponsor to leave the Soviet Union," she says. It took her about a month to learn enough English to feel comfortable speaking freely with her public school classmates. "There was nobody that spoke Russian, and I remember a veil of not understanding anything around me, and crying all the time, and then all the sudden understanding everything that everybody was saying. I think that's how kids learn."
She continued to write poetry in Russian, never imagining that the words would someday become song lyrics. Instead, she and Ben toyed with playing covers of traditional Russian folk songs, eventually for an audience of friends in their home. The intriguing juxtaposition caught the ear of TGNP producer and Ben's longtime friend and former bandmate Ryan Olson. He and producer Ryan Olcott encouraged the two to write material of their own to be released on the TGNP label. Combining one of Ben's sparse, intricate soundscapes, and Irene's vocals, "I Want To" was their first original piece. "I Want To" appears on StoLyette's newly released debut album, Lubymaya, produced by Olcott.
Lubymaya is a sprawling yet cohesive work. Raw emotion is palpable in Irene's vocals as she spins tales inspired by the women in her life, over Ben's carefully constructed landscape of bass, giga delay pedals, and pitch shifter. Her use of Russian provides a unique opportunity for the English-speaking listener to interpret the meaning of each song solely by the experience of hearing it. The album opens with "Bride Groom," its driving guitar setting a dark and somewhat menacing tone.
From there, the shadows lift and a body of ambient sounds is expertly woven around the ever-present abrupt bass serving as the skeleton. Their minimalist approach of recording with only bass and vocals at the time of performance, in one straight take, conveys a certain honesty and fragility heard in the organic sensibility of the work. The songs are naked, exposed.
"Some of my favorite things to listen to are older '60s music where everything isn't synced up — you actually hear somebody playing the whole song," Ben says. "As opposed to when you go into a studio and play a part, and it will be cut, and you just repeat it. [I didn't] want to do that, and also it will get in the way of what we're doing. Every time I play, it's a little different. Each loop that I'm playing is new, and so you react to it a bit differently."
Several evenings later, we are at Icehouse. Dim lights illuminate drinks set on the bar, and a modest crowd is gathered to see StoLyette. Ben has traded in the other day's preppy pink polo shirt for a worn ribbed tank top and stone-encrusted necklace, and bits of glittering eyeshadow flicker on Irene's lids. He sits on the stage, feet surrounded by boxes of pedals, gingerly cradling his bass guitar. Carefully he creates the first loop, pressing down on the pedals with his toes. She sways to the music, leaning into the microphone. Her voice carries elegantly over the room, but most eyes are fixed on Ben. He becomes a one-man orchestra. Together, they cast their spell.
"We're never trying to do any particular sound, and when we write new songs we try to fight against making things sound like other songs," Irene says. "We just want to make music that's exciting for us to do."